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Alan Dale, Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.(Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). xiv+270 pp., Hbk. ISBN: 0-8166-3657-5, £18.00 (hbk).

Reviewed by Kathrina Glitre

 

In his Preface, Alan Dale claims this book is “more contemporary, less elegiac” (p.xi) than a previous seminal work on American slapstick comedy, Walter Kerr’s Silent Clowns (1975). Certainly, such a book needed to be written, especially given the resurgence of slapstick Dale recognizes in films as diverse as Evil Dead II (1987) and The Mask (1994). Dale’s enthusiasm for his subject is infectious, but while his intentions are good, the book’s execution ultimately defeats his purpose. This is an extremely old-fashioned book.

The book’s main limitation is its outdated attitude to gender. The implications of the title are confirmed by the content: Dale assumes the comic protagonist is male. Although the book does include a chapter on “Girl Heroes” (the title immediately belying Dale’s patronizing attitude), there is no discussion of important physical comediennes such as Marie Dressler, Charlotte Greenwood and Martha Raye - at least in part because of their physical traits: “the average male wouldn’t ordinarily think of [them] romantically” (p.106). As this suggests, Dale also assumes the audience is male. This bias is barely acknowledged until this point, and what little “proofs” he now offers are extremely unconvincing, relying primarily on the vested opinions of male film-makers such as Mack Sennett and Groucho Marx, while ignoring the realities of film exhibition during the period. Rather than recognizing the possibility that there may be some kind of ideological imperative at work here (physical exertion as a male prerogative), Dale chooses to accept ideology as fact.

This is nowhere clearer than in his repeated claims for the “universal” nature of slapstick comedy: “it isn’t too much to say that slapstick is a fundamental, universal and eternal response to the fact that life is physical” (p.11). Quite apart from the conflation of universal with male - time and again, Dale refers inclusively to the audience as “us” and “our”, when he actually means male spectators (e.g., pp.75-76) - this supposed universality actually works to naturalize the status of slapstick as obvious and transparent. Indeed, Dale goes so far as to compare slapstick to natural phenomena such as waterfalls and earthquakes (p.27), ostensibly to explain the absence of “profound” (by which he means literary) ideas in slapstick, but simultaneously excusing the absence of critical analysis of the texts: “slapstick movies are artistically whole in an almost wholly intuitive sense” (p.27).

Unfortunately, this means that the book’s content and structure is quite conventional, with little to say that is new or insightful. Chapter One is concerned with defining slapstick comedy, and although comparisons to Madame Bovary (1857) and War and Peace (1865-69) are unexpected, they are not entirely convincing. Subsequent chapters focus on one or two stars in chronological order. Chaplin is berated for his sentimentality, Keaton is praised for his ingenuity, and Lloyd is the regular guy who conforms to expectation. The “girl” heroes (Mabel Normand, Colleen Moore and Beatrice Lillie) are too pretty to engage in too much physical action, and what little slapstick they do indulge in is cured by marriage and motherhood. The Marx Brothers are anarchic, and the films made at Paramount are better than those made at MGM. The chapter on Preston Sturges is no better or worse than most writing on Sturges, but still comes nowhere near to appreciating the tensions in his work. Instead, Dale takes Sturges at his word (which can never be trusted). He considers The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944) to be a moral tale (p.176) and finds a “serious sentimentality” (p.182) about World War II in Hail the Conquering Hero (1944). Finally, Dale turns to Jerry Lewis, recognizing the mixture of aggression and sentiment in Lewis’s undisciplined, infantile style, as well as his influence on contemporary slapstick. The Coda to the book considers a few of these descendants - Eddie Murphy, Jim Carrey and (rather more surprisingly) Nicolas Cage - but more as an afterthought than as a fully developed argument. The brevity only makes other absences more obvious: there is no mention of Steve Martin, Whoopi Goldberg or Ben Stiller. Dale also suggests that the special effects in The Mask point to a “real jump” in the development of slapstick, offering “the best method so far for working around the lack of acrobatically trained comedians” (p.217). This would seem the perfect opportunity to discuss the impact of physically trained Hong Kong stars, such as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, but no mention is made.

Given Dale’s intention to be “more contemporary”, the omission of serious consideration of recent slapstick is inexplicable. The book’s conventional content is further exacerbated by Dale’s approach: beyond a couple of references to Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson, there is no engagement with theories of comedy, and Dale’s main method is psychological criticism, interpreting the movies through the stars’ biographies. From an academic point of view, this is such an outmoded approach as to render the book obsolete; but then, this is not an academic book - despite its publishers. It is rather a highly personal monograph, written in an informal and anecdotal style (e.g., p.15). The problem is that the book ends up being neither one thing (academic) nor the other (popular), but is stuck somewhere between the two. Dale’s dilemma is made explicit in the Preface: “the flags to slalom between stood out […] in a disagreement I arbitrated between a guy who saw Freudian significance in the fact that Bugs Bunny is always whipping a carrot out of his ‘pocket’ and a guy who, suspecting that this typically academic interpretation made plain the irrelevance of all interpretation, countered in disgust, ‘He’s a bunny, man!’” (p.xii). In trying to please both sides of the argument, I suspect Dale has ended up satisfying no one, but his commitment to the project does make for some entertaining reading.

 

Kathrina Glitre is a Lecturer in Film, in the School of Cultural Studies at The University of the West of England. She has recently completed a PhD in classical Hollywood Romantic Comedy and last year published an article, “The Same, but Different: The Awful Truth about Marriage, Remarriage and Screwball Comedy”, in CineAction.


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